Miss Mitchell's Comet

What's Up? by Adam England

Born August 1, 1818 to a Quaker family in the island town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, Maria Mitchell was the third of ten children raised by a schoolteacher father and librarian mother.

The culture of fishing and whaling was such that the women were often left alone for months and raised to be just as educated as the men, something quite rare for the time. Her mother’s profession afforded her a nearly limitless supply of reading material, and her father took every opportunity to teach his children the science of astronomy. By age 12 she was a teaching assistant to her father, and together they accurately calculated the exact moment of the 1831 eclipse. Before age 20 she opened her own school, allowing nonwhite children to learn side-by-side with their peers.

On the night of October 1, 1847, at exactly 10:50pm, she discovered a telescopic comet, invisible to the naked eye. After a brief dispute with an Italian astronomer, it was learned that Mitchell’s discovery came two days before the other astronomer’s reported finding, and she received the Cometary Prize Medal from Denmark's King Frederick VI, inscribed with words from Virgil’s Georgics: Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus (“not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars”). The discovery of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” made her only the third woman to win credit for a cometary discovery.

She became a superstar back home in Nantucket, rubbing elbows with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. The US government took notice, and she took a position tracking the movements of the planets to aid in navigation.

Still never having attended formal college herself, she was appointed professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, a post she held for over 20 years. This made her the first woman to work as both a professional astronomer and a professor of astronomy.

She began recording sunspots in 1868, and in 1873 began photographing them daily with her students, developing many theories about the sun, planets, nebulae and double stars that still hold today. Despite this, she was paid less than much younger male professors, so she fought for equal pay, and got it.

She retired in 1888, a year before she died of brain disease at age 70.

You may not get to see Miss Mitchell’s Comet in your lifetime, but if you ever find yourself on New York's Metro North commuter line, you just might get to ride the train named the Maria Mitchell Comet.

To learn more about the sky, telescopes, orsocialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.

Adam Englandis a local insurance broker who moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at

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